Diplomats Hope Syrian Rebels' Losses Promote Collaboration

Syrian rebels are on the defensive these days, losing ground to new offensives by government troops. Western diplomats are hopeful the rebel losses will persuade their leaders to attend an international conference being organized by the U.S. and Russia to chart a path to peace in the blood-soaked country. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Deb Amos.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The civil war in Syria is threatening to destabilize the entire region. as fighting erupted this week in Al-Qusair, a city near the Lebanese border. Rebel troops have controlled Al-Qusair for more than a year but government troops recently launched an offensive there.

A U.S. State Department official expressed deep concern over reports that the Syrian government has dropped leaflets over the town warning civilians to evacuate or be treated as combatants. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from Southern Turkey. Deb, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Yes, good morning.

SIMON: And why is the U.S. government and U.N. raising the alarm?

AMOS: Well, one thing is where Al-Qusair is. It's near a major logistics highway that connects the capital to central Syria and to the coast. So it's the quarter from Damascus to the sea. The second reason is because who's fighting. Hezbollah, the Shiite militia from neighboring Lebanon has crossed the border to join this battle. This week, Hezbollah's chief acknowledged his forces were fighting alongside the Syrian army against the rebels who have held Al-Qusair for more than a year.

SIMON: Now, of course, the State Department warned the Syrian government against further attacks against civilians. Do we know how many civilians are still in Al-Qusair?

AMOS: Somewhere around 25 to 30,000, and alarms are sounding because this battle follows a terrifying massacre in the Syrian town of Bayda, further up the coast. Videos from the siege show scores of bodies, people stabbed and shot to death, including women and children. So there are fears for Qusayr says Amin Barroudi, who works with the humanitarian arm of the Syria opposition.

AMIN BARROUDI: The civilian people in Al-Qusair are under serious risk. Those people are not really armed. They are defended by few Free Syrian Army people, but any American has more ammunition under his bed than what they have in their storage. So I would say it's a huge, main concern.

AMOS: I spoke with Barroudi here in Gaziantep this morning and he says the Syrian opposition has also raised red flags because Hezbollah fighters are now in the battle and because of the casualties expected.

BARROUDI: We are losing a person roughly every 10, 15 minutes. This is really a huge nightmare for us Syrians, trying to convince the world to take a fast action.

AMOS: That's Amin Barroudi, who's working with the humanitarian office of the Syrian main opposition group.

SIMON: Deb, we've heard warnings from the U.S. administration and the United Nations quite a few times before, but Syria continues in this downward spiral. This week, Washington, D.C. and Moscow seemed to revive a plan to try for negotiated settlement. Is that realistic now?

AMOS: It certainly doesn't stop the fighting. The rebels are losing ground and it doesn't seem likely that Assad or his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, will back down from the confrontation. One regional diplomat told me this week: We are fast approaching a time when anything we do will be too late.

SIMON: Deb, if someone in Al-Qusair wanted to leave, where would they go?

AMOS: It is difficult to go. We heard this morning that some people have been prevented from leaving Al-Qusair. So on the one hand, you have leaflets asking them to leave; on the other hand, they can't get out. They have been told that if they don't leave town they will be treated as combatants and that potentially means they are targets.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Gaziantep, Southern Turkey. Thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott.

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